Monday, 5 November 2007

Burn, Baby, Burn

It was hard not to flinch as My Lovely Wife and I walked down the street last night. Every few minutes there was the dull thud of a firecracker or the whizz of a sky-rocket, followed by a flash. And it wasn't just last night. It's been going all week and will doubtless continue tonight. Celebrating the capture, torture and execution of Britain's most famous terrorist is serious business.

On Nov. 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught, torch in hand, in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament. He wasn't looking for a lost contact lens but rather was about to set off 36 barrels of gunpowder in the hopes of executing a rather extreme form of regime change. By blowing up King James I and most of his government, Fawkes and his co-conspirators believed, Catholics would have a better life in Britain.

That was the plan at least. With Fawkes apprehended the other plotters were soon rolled up. (King James reportedly personally authorized Fawkes's torture. The parallels to today are just too obvious for me to dwell upon.) Citizens are said to have spontaneously celebrated the plot's discovery by building bonfires in honor of their King and burning effigies of Fawkes and the Pope. That tradition continues today, although with not as much Pontiff-toasting as in the past.

One marvels at the memorializing instincts of humans: Fawkes is caught with gunpowder, so let's celebrate with... gunpowder! If he'd been planning to kill the king with a poisoned blowdart all the shops in Britain would be selling cheap plastic blowdarts this time of year.

I don't think I've seen as many "Buy Fireworks Here!" signs since I was in South Carolina around Fourth of July. What's odd is that there don't seem many places to light fireworks. Certainly the neighborhood we're in--rowhouses, postage-stamp back gardens--doesn't seem especially suitable for pyrotechnics. (And, predictably, the local police chief has reservations.)

But who doesn't like fireworks? They're cool no matter what the occasion. And once you get past the thought that you're living in a war zone--as crackers go boom every night from about 5 p.m onwards--it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit. Towns and villages have their Guy Fawkes displays, as do schools, clubs and pyromaniacal individuals. We spent Saturday night with my sister and her family in St. Albans on the grounds of the Old Albanians Rugby Club. (Named, I discovered, after St. ALBANs, and not after elderly Eastern European sports lovers.) The club put on a great display:

With Guy Fawkes Day falling on a Monday this year, things may be quiet tonight. And eventually the explosives will run out and peace will return to the darkening sky.


mark from alexandria said...

I've read that the influx of Poles to the UK has the Catholic churches full to capacity and threatening to result in a UK that is more Roman than Anglican in its faith tradition. I wonder if that will result in any pc movement to stop Guy Fawkes celebrations.

cktirumalai said...

T.S.Eliot began in St. Louis and Boston but eventually became more English than the English. He chose as one of his epigraphs for "The Hollow Men" (1925) a modified form of the children's cry, "A penny for the Old Guy".

suburbancorrespondent said...

Holy cow, T.S.Eliot was American?

cktirumalai said...

suburban correspondent: well may you be surprised, T.S.Eliot's manner and accent were so impeccably English. When asked if he was English or American, he replied that whichever W.H. Auden, who lived much of his later life in America, was, he supposed he was the other. An American who was a colleague of Eliot's at Faber and Faber surprised him once with Fourth of July firecrackers in the office.

Anonymous said...

"Holy cow, T.S.Eliot was American?"

Oh my.